The second commemorative coin issued in 1925 marked the centennial of Fort Vancouver, a British/American trading post in the Pacific Northwest set up for trading with the Native Americans in the region. While Fort Vancouver was originally in an area that was generally believed to be in British hands, it became part of the United States through the Oregon Treaty of 1849. Obviously such a commemoration was largely regional, as few people outside of the area would have known the history of Fort Vancouver and the importance it played in early Northwest American history. Nonetheless, a commemorative half dollar was issued and perhaps not surprisingly sales were lackluster leaving many remaining unsold pieces to be eventually melted.
Fort Vancouver is located just north of Portland, Oregon near Vancouver, Washington, cities which are located on opposite banks of the Columbia River. The first outpost on that location was established in the winter of 1824, as the westernmost fort in a trading network that stretched from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Hudson Bay in present-day Canada. Its first occupants were employees of the British Hudson’s Bay Company, a fur trading company that was founded in 1670 and remains in operation to this day. HBC is still selling fur clothing despite protests from animal rights groups, while also active in banking and other activities.
For the first 22 years of its existence the fort was managed by Dr. John McLoughlin, who held a position called Chief Factor by contemporaries. Under his supervision, both the fort and the Oregon territory became increasingly important, giving him the nickname “Father of Oregon”. Fort Vancouver did not have any warlike instruments during McLoughlin’s tenure there; two old canons that were kept inside the fort for protection against Native Americans and other potential enemies remained unused (and supposedly were not in the best of conditions to begin with). Later the American army would occupy the fort, and until they abandoned it in 2011 it was the longest continually operated Military post west of Missouri.
Contemporary descriptions of McLoughlin’s management at the fort generally give a fair opinion about the man, who was often said to rule with an iron hand but stayed just in the process, and under whose management incidents between Native Americans and settlers were minimal. The book Dr. John McLoughlin, the Father of Oregon by Frederick V. Holman (free on Kindle) gives a good account of early conditions at Fort Vancouver under Mcloughlin in a single sentence:
At Fort Vancouver Dr. John McLoughlin lived and ruled in a manner befitting that of an old English Baron in feudal times, but with a graciousness and courtesy, which, I fear, were not always the rule with the ancient Barons. (32)
It should not come as a surprise that McLoughlin would be prominently featured on the commemorative half dollar honoring Fort Vancouver. His bust is placed on the obverse, facing left, in what appears to be an image from a photograph taken in his later years. The design was made by Sidney Bell, while the models were executed by Laura Gardin Fraser. The obverse includes the inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on top, while the denomination as HALF DOLLAR is near the bottom. In front and behind the bust of McLoughlin are the dates “1825 – 1925” with IN GOD / WE TRUST and DR. JOHN McLOUGHLIN placed directly under the bust in small print.
The reverse features a panorama of the fort as it appeared in its earliest years, with an early settler standing in front of it. The whole scene is encircled by a continuous border, which has the words FORT VANCOUVER CENTENNIAL placed inside of it near the top, and near the bottom (in small print) is VANCOUVER ● WASHINGTON ● FOUNDED ● 1825 ● BY ● HUDSON’S BAY COMPANY (with Hudson’s Bay Company placed lower in larger letters. The initials of Laura Gardin Fraser, who is generally credited with the design, are also on the reverse.
The coins were struck at the San Francisco Mint, but perhaps due to oversight the S mintmark was omitted from either side, giving it the appearance of a coin struck at the Philadelphia Mint. This is the only classic commemorative not struck at the San Francisco Mint which lacks a mintmark.
A total of 300,000 coins were initially authorized by Congress, but interest proved to warrant much lower production numbers, and the total output halted at 50,028 coins. Of these 35,034 were later melted, resulting in a net mintage of 14,994 pieces. These were flown to Fort Vancouver from the San Francisco Mint (the first time this happened with an entire mintage) and sold by the Fort Vancouver Centennial Corporation both at Fort Vancouver itself (in particular during a special week of celebrations in mid-August of 1925) as well as over the mail to collectors at $1 a piece, but as can be told from the number of pieces sold the interest was moderate at best.
Over the years this issue has proven to be extremely rare in gem (MS-65) and higher grades. While it is generally not considered to be a key-date in an early commemorative set, the conscious collector might have to spend a surprisingly long time to find a mint state example that has original surfaces, a strong strike and no friction on the highest points.
Variety collecting of commemorative half dollars is not extremely popular nor are many varieties known, but for “variety hunters” there is a single doubled die that will be designated as such by PCGS, known as FS-102. This particular variety shows minor doubling on the obverse on 1925 and WE TRUST. While it appears to be a very scarce variety, examples sell at the same levels as a regular coin, and very few dealers will designate such coins as DDO’s.
Finally, Walter Breen reported (in his Proof coin encyclopedia) the existence of Matte Proofs, and two others are reportedly known. These would have satiny like surfaces and an extremely sharp strike, but details are scarce and none of these coins has been seen in recent years.